THE CROSSLEY FAMILY
of Swinden (Langsett), Penistone parish, Stocksbridge WRY & Jamaica
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THE MYSTERIOUS CROSSLEY FAMILY
….Or the reason I became interested in family history…..
Winter days in my childhood were the time for tales and mysteries. Sitting besides the coal fire, listening to the wind rattling the window panes and the rain driving hard on the glass, my grandma would sit in her favourite chair and tell me stories of times past. As I sat in grandad's big old armchair, snug as a bug, staring into the flames at a fantasy world of dragons and wizards, the coal burning bright in the hearth, a silence would descend, and a spell fall on that dark room. And as the shadows played on the walls and ceiling, and the outside world darkened beyond the windows, grandma would begin spinning her magic.
Ah, the family legend…..just who was the mysterious ancestor, a ‘Lady in her own right’, owning her own crested linen and silver? I was never sure what that meant, but it sounded important. Some of the forks and spoons packed away in the attic had initials and crests on them - did they once belong to her? There was of course the romantic elopement, running away with one of the servants - the family's coachman - and the inevitable consequence of being disowned, never to be referred to again, any references to her destroyed, gone as if she never existed for bringing shame on the family. But where did she go, and who was she? More tales would emerge over time, a young girl stolen away by white slave traders and never heard of again, and another who was a “Queen’s nurse”.
The attic held no clues, although I was forever up there looking for them, emerging black all over from the dust of accumulated years. It was my favourite room, crammed with old forgotten possessions. I loved its bowed, steep-slanting ceiling, and the small window looking out onto the clouds. The room was stuffed with old trunks and suitcases, containing clothes, shoes, jewellery, books and photographs. Nan was one of life’s hoarders, squirreling things away, and it was my paradise. Downstairs in the master bedroom was a cupboard known as the “glory hole” which held all the things that had been brought down from the attic. When the door would no longer close, all the things in it would be returned to the attic.
My grandma’s father was called Thomas Marsh Crossley, and he was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Crossley. Elizabeth never married but she had at least four illegitimate children, none of whom she appears to have brought up herself. As a grown-up I came to realise that White Slavery was a euphemism for prostitution. Could my great-great grandmother have been a scarlet woman?! One illegitimate child was usually accepted as a mistake, albeit a shameful one…but four? Perhaps that was the rather prosaic explanation for the White Slave story.
Over the years I learnt another story to do with slaves - this time, the black slave trade in Jamaica. The Crossley ancestry stretches back over many years in a small isolated part of the parish of Penistone called Swinden. It was just a scattering of farms, close to what is now Stocksbridge, with the road to Manchester close by to the north (now the very busy Woodhead Pass) and to the south nothing but bleak moorland. The Crossleys seem to have lived and worked here for generations, but Elizabeth's great-great grandfather John (born in 1728) had a nephew whose life was certainly very different from the one that was probably mapped out for him.
Benjamin Crossley, born in 1774, went to Jamaica in about 1800 when he would have been about 26 years of age. What on earth happened to make this one man up-sticks and sail across the ocean to a Caribbean island, in an age when many people never left their parish boundaries? He owned plantations out there, and traded heavily in slaves and never came back to these shores. He had three sons with Elizabeth Hannah, a "free woman of colour", and at least one of them came to England, pursuing the trade of seed and spice merchant. Benjamin died in 1822, and his brother Luke Thomas inherited everything, thus transforming his life as an isolated farmer to that of a wealthy gentleman. Living in a succession of large mansions, and carrying on his brother's interests in Jamaica, he invested in banks and railways and became extremely rich. One of his sons, also Benjamin, went to Jamaica to oversee the plantations, but refused to give them up when they were sold, thus causing a long, drawn-out, expensive case in Chancery. All was not rosy in this gilded life though. One of Luke Thomas's daughters committed suicide by drinking poison, and there does seem to have been an eccentric streak running through the family. The eldest son Thomas was a chaplain at Hampton Court Palace, and was accused of drinking too much of the communion wine!
Meanwhile, I carried on looking into my own family to see if I could shed any light on the family tales using the few things my grandma could recall being told herself. I cannot remember if she told me whether she knew her father's mother, so I don't know where the stories came from - perhaps from her father. As with most family tales, there was some truth in the things she could remember - I have found almost all the people she mentioned.
I have a photograph of Elizabeth Crossley, on the back of which someone has written, ‘Elizabeth, mother of Thomas Marsh Crossley.’ She never married, but is wearing a wedding ring. She gave birth to Thomas in a slum in Sheffield, quite a way from Stocksbridge where her family lived. No. 7 Court, Chapel Street was at Bridgehouses in Sheffield, near the Wicker. This area was a maze of back to back terraces and yards, with houses crowding the courtyards, shared outside toilets and a shared tap. Courts and yards were confined and cramped, with little sunlight or fresh air reaching them. The houses were dark, dirty, damp and often overcrowded. I have no idea why she was there. Thomas was brought up by the Marsh family in Stocksbridge, not by Elizabeth's parents. They could well have been his paternal grandparents.
Elizabeth had already had three children. The eldest was born in 1874, christened Mary Alice but named Mary on the birth certificate. To complicate things, she seems to have gone by the name Florence Mary or Mary Florence. She was brought up by Elizabeth's parents, and married John William Moody. Both Florence and John died in the flu epidemic of 1937.
Second child Ernest was born in 1876, and was also brought up by Elizabeth's parents. Another son, Wright, was born in 1879 but died aged one year from Struma Meningitis, a form of tuberculosis. The informant on the death certificate was a neighbour of Elizabeth's parents, who was present at the death, which makes me think Elizabeth had disappeared again. My great grandfather Thomas Marsh was born in 1886.
Elizabeth seems to have evaded most of the census enumerators. She appears as a child, and again in 1871 when she was working as a servant in Dukinfield, Cheshire, but I have not found her on any census since. In 1883, Elizabeth's sister gave birth to a premature baby, and Elizabeth had helped to conceal both its birth and its death. She had to attend the inquest at the Rising Sun Hotel, Hunshelf. Her sister Louisa Crossley was a domestic servant at the home of solicitor Mr. E. Knowles Binns of Sharrow. Elizabeth said that she had destroyed all traces of her sister's confinement, and wrapped the child in a petticoat, and placed it in a tin box. Louisa had said to Elizabeth, "Oh Lizzie, I don't know what I am to do. Where shall I go? I must go home". She then left the house, taking the tin box containing the body of the child with her, and went to her father's house at Stocksbridge. The verdict was that, "the child died from want of proper assistance at the time of birth."
The Binns family was no stranger to scandal. The year before all this happened, Mr Binns had responded to an advert in the Matrimonial News placed by a widow, Ada Caroline Milne of Tunbridge Wells. She had a fortune of £18,000. However, her brother F. Liebert, took great steps to stop the marriage. When Mr Binns met the lady at her home, her brother gave him a thrashing and turned him out of the house, repeating the beating at the railway station. He said she was not responsible for her actions, having been confined to an asylum at some point. He also tried to disrupt the marriage, dashing to Sheffield, hiring men and a carriage to forcibly prevent the marriage on the grounds of her not being of sound mind. Mr Binns had, however, anticipated this, and "a score of constables" were present. The story even made the New York Times. There must have been some truth in the brother's assertion that she was of unsound mind, for she died in a mental institution in Paris in 1890.
Elizabeth died at 16 New Haywoods [now Marsh Street], Deepcar in 1929 aged 78. The informant was Ernest Crossley, her son. After evading officialdom all her life, she appears on the electoral roll for several years after her death!
Elizabeth had been born in 1851 at Hollowmeadows the daughter of Charles Crossley and Mary Poynton. They moved to Spink House at Stocksbridge and then to the Coach House on Hunshelf Bank. In 1886, Elizabeth's brother Charles was in trouble with the law, for stealing three fowls from a farmer called Mr. Hurst. He admitted the offence, and that he was drunk at the time, and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment with hard labour. Charles senior died in 1890 at the age of 73. His widow went to live at 16 Haywoods Park, Deepcar.
Ten children were born to Charles and Mary, and my grandma had remembered some of the names, though I am not sure she knew who they were. There were three girls; Emily, Elizabeth (my great-great-grandmother) and Martha Louisa (she who was in trouble for concealing the birth and death of her child). Then came Elias Poynton, who died young, leaving a child, Arnold, who was killed in the Great War in 1918 after being in France for less than three months. He was under 5' 4", weighed less than 9 stones, and was very slightly built. He was deployed to strengthen trenches and lay communication lines. The next son, Fred, emigrated to Australia, and of the following two sons, Charles died aged 40 and Arnold died whilst still a baby. Then came three more girls. Pollie was a "mental nurse"… My grandmother said there was a "Queen's nurse" in the family, but I am not sure if this was her. She worked in mental hospitals until she retired. Eleanor was born in 1870 but I have found no trace of her after 1911, and finally there was Havis, (an unusual forename), who married Andrew Philp, a builder, and lived in Wilmslow. My grandma said that one of the aunts "married a rich builder and lived in Wilmslow" - I don't know if he was rich, but she was right about the occupation and location. She thought there were two children called Melanie and Phoebe, but so far I haven't found them.
So now, almost half a century on, I am no closer to finding out who this "titled lady" was, or even if she existed at all. Perhaps it is best left as a fireside tale, full of mystery and romance. I did my best to find out for my grandma who she was, as she truly believed the legend, but I am no closer now than I was then, although I have certainly unearthed some secrets along the way. Perhaps, after all, that was just a story made up to disguise the fact that Thomas Marsh's mother was a "wrong 'un".
Family legends and fabulous stories …. It's easy to forget why I became interested in family history, in an age when everything seems to have been computerised and available at the click of a mouse, when the days of travelling the country and trawling through the original registers under the eagle eye of an archivist are long gone, and there is no need to scroll through a whole microfilm of the census return to find what you are looking for. Technology is a wonderful thing, but I have written this to remind myself of how it all began…….